Ascension of Our Lord

The disciples walking to Emmaus have hurried back to Jerusalem and reported their experience.

Ascendit Christus
"Ascendit Christus," Capitoline Museum in Rome. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

May 29, 2014

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Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

The disciples walking to Emmaus have hurried back to Jerusalem and reported their experience.

In the midst of their report, Jesus himself joins them and asks for something to eat. What comes next links Jesus (and Christianity) to Jewish faith and practice. Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, a rough contemporary of Jesus, said that the proper response to any situation was to “turn the Torah and turn it, for everything is in it.” In the face of circumstances that confuse, confound, and complicate everything, faithful Jews read Scripture, and read it again, and read it yet again.

That is what Luke’s storyteller presents to us: in the course of a story about great joy that will come to all people, the messiah is killed by Roman imperial force. Now this same messiah has returned: to life, to Jerusalem, and to the regular practice of eating with his disciples. Luke’s storyteller shows him turning Scripture and turning it, replicating the practice that exercised the early Christian community and gave it theological shape.

Luke argues that resurrection is key to the work of God (and God’s messiah) in the world. Rome can indeed crucify. In crushing the First Jewish Revolt (66-73CE), Rome crucified thousands of Jews. Luke’s audience would have known that; they probably even knew people (even relatives) who had been crucified. Roman violence can even kill the messiah, that agent of God’s restorative purpose in the world, but now Rome faces a God who can raise the dead to life.

Jacob Jervell, in his study of the book of Acts (Die Apostelgeschichte, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), notes that the hope of resurrection is central to Luke. Luke is arguing, says Jervell, that any other view isn’t even Jewish. This is partly a continuation of an old, passionate argument about what counts as Scripture: not just the Pentateuch (as the Sadducees argued), but also the prophets and the writings (agreeing with the Pharisees). It is also a new and passionate argument about what the crushing of the Jewish revolt means for the positions held by collaborationist Sadducees. And it is an argument about how it is possible to hope in a world in which Rome has such power.

Luke recognizes the shock that faithful Jews felt when Rome destroyed the Temple and along with it Jewish hopes. Luke is arguing that the experience of the Jewish people is embodied also in the career path of the messiah, and that this path is first described in Scripture. Jewish faith has always been a faith that expected life out of death, and the crushing of the Jewish revolt, seen through the lens of the story Luke tells about the messiah, is simply another exemplification of the old pattern of living a life of hope so durable that even death cannot kill it.

Luke even goes so far as to expect that the raising of hope out of death and destruction will bring about change-of-mind (metanoia, usually translated as “repentance”) for the Gentiles. This is not a bland statement of some kind of Christian universalism, and it certainly is not grounds for Gentile Christian supersessionism. Luke is telling his story in the ruins of the Temple, in the ruins of Jewish life and hope, in a world in which Gentiles, the children of Esau, create chaos and deadly violence at will. In this dangerous world Luke says that, because Jewish faith believes in resurrection, even Gentile enemies will be raised to change-of-mind and will participate in the reunification of all of God’s Creation.

This is no small, spiritual hope. This is no abandonment of Jewish forms of messianic hope of a world transformed. Quite the contrary: Luke stands in the ruins of the Temple and reclaims the old hope of real transformation. This hope goes back to Isaiah and the Exile, goes back also to Ezekiel standing in the valley of dry bones. In Ezekiel, the prophet stands in a valley full of the bones of Jews killed by Gentiles and receives a promise of a rebirth of hope that had been clean cut off.

Luke stands in the midst of a similar scene of slaughter. Luke promises a raising and re-gathering of all of God’s Creation, even from among the enemy who brought destruction to the Jewish center of the world. This is real audacity. It will require metanoia, that basic change of heart that changes everything. It will require that Gentile enemies become something basically different than they have ever been, namely, allies in place of enemies. Luke presents this as the consequence of what you should expect out of a faith that refuses to see even death as a hindrance to the keeping of God’s promises.

This may be too much. Every one of us has heard expressions of pointless Pollyanna-like “faith” that imagines that all you have to do is smile and be cheery and perky and plucky and everything will turn out great. The gospel of perkiness is finally no gospel at all. If Luke were simply exhorting people to be happy, I would find his story repellent. The world does not need more phony smiles, more desperate cheerfulness.

But Luke is up to something stronger. He makes this clear when he has Jesus direct his gathered followers to wait in Jerusalem and begin from there. At our distance in time and memory, we forget what this would have meant. Luke’s first audience would not have had access to that lazy luxury. Jerusalem was a smoking ruin. Elie Wiesel, standing in the ashes of European civilization says what Jews in Luke’s audience would have recognized as their own words: Never will I forget. His words from his book, Night, are worth quoting at length:

Never- will I forget this night, the first night in the camp, it will remain with me as being the longest night in my life. Never- will I forget the smoke. Never- will I forget the small faces of the children before my eyes, whose bodies rose up like coils of smoke, into the blue heavens. Never- will I forget the flames, that consumed my faith forever. Never- will I forget the silence in the night, that took my lust for life away- for all eternity. Never- will I forget the moment that killed my God, and my soul and my dreams- which took on the face of the depraved. Never- will I forget even if I am sentenced to live as long as God: Never!!

Luke’s Jewish audience would also remember the coils of smoke that rose from the flames of Jerusalem; Luke’s audience would have had relatives among the dead, listed by ancient sources as numbering a million. Luke expects the raising-to-life to start there. Luke expects even Gentiles to be included in God’s act of re-Creation. The text for this Sunday raises our eyes to see this audacious faith. Such faith takes my breath away. The text for this Sunday leaves me to wait for Pentecost for breath to come back.